Coffee Chat #3: Ben Minden from Bear Hug Cattle Company
Check out my convo with the founder and President of Bear Hug Cattle Company, Ben Minden!
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Happy Tuesday to those who celebrate. Today I am back with Coffee Chat #3, featuring Ben Minden. Ben is the founder and CEO of Bear Hug Cattle Company, a nonprofit vocational training organization for military veterans who want to enter the ranching industry.
Ben has one heck of a resume. After graduating from West Point, he joined the US Army Rangers, deploying to both Afghanistan and Iraq before advising on counter-terrorism at the US Army’s Africa headquarters in Italy.
After leaving the Army, Ben attended Harvard Business School, where he took Bear Hug from a loose idea formed in Columbus, Georgia to a full-time organization out west.
Now, Ben splits his time between running Bear Hug and working for Hivers & Strivers Capital, a Washington D.C.-based venture capital firm. I hope you enjoy learning more about Ben’s journey and what he’s building with Bear Hug Cattle Company.
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Now to today’s piece 🤝
Jack: Ben, thanks for taking some time to chat with me today! I’m glad our friend Jake could set this up. Let’s get right to it: What exactly is Bear Hug Cattle Company?
Ben: Of course, thanks for having me! To answer your question, Bear Hug Cattle Company is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that helps guys and gals who are leaving the military get their first job in the ranching industry through a 10-week program out west.
Each class spends their first two weeks at our camp that we lease in Walden, Colorado, just south of the Wyoming/Colorado line. In Walden, we cover all of the training and classroom stuff, and we ride around, teaching the guys everything they need to know about horses. Once we’re done here, we go on the road, spending the next two months working different ranches in Northern Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, where we end the program with a big fundraiser.
Jack: Good stuff. I want to ask more about Bear Hug in a minute, but first, who is “Ben Minden?” What’s your background?
Ben: Sure, so the short version goes something like this: I grew up in New Jersey, maybe 15 miles west of New York City, on the other side of Newark. When I was in high school, I was interested in joining the military, while my mom and dad had always encouraged me to go to college.
One day, they said, “Hey, you know there’s a way to both go to college and join the military. Let’s check it out.” So my mom took me to visit West Point, and I loved it. I applied, got accepted, and headed to basic training six days after my high school graduation before spending the next four years at West Point. After school, I was commissioned as an infantry officer in the Army, and I headed to Fort Benning, Georgia for training. I then joined my unit, the 101st Airborne Division in Fort Campbell, and we headed to Afghanistan for a nine-month deployment.
After my first deployment, I tried out and got accepted to the Ranger Regiment, and I landed in the 3rd Ranger Battalion, where I headed back to Afghanistan before a five-month tour in Iraq. Next, I spent some time in Italy doing counter-terror advising in the Army’s Africa headquarters. That covers most of my Army career.
Interestingly enough, the idea for Bear Hug actually started around ~2019 while I was still in the Army, stationed at Fort Benning.
Jack: So your western ranching nonprofit was born in Columbus, Georgia? What’s the story behind that?
Ben: Yep, it was actually pretty random. So when I was still in the Army, I started chatting with a stranger in a local butcher shop in Columbus. He told me he was a horse trainer, and he offered me an open invitation to come see him if I ever wanted to try it.
So I took him up on that offer and rode with him one day, and I fell in love with it. Man, it was awesome. I got more and more plugged in with that whole community, and I started showing and competing with him, and I realized, “Wow, these guys have so much in common with the people I work with in the military. They love being outside and doing hard work. They value putting the team before themselves. It’s just so similar to the military. So when I left the Army, I went straight back to that ranching community, and I felt like I didn’t miss a beat. I was doing a different job, but it was that same team dynamic, you know?
Meanwhile, a lot of my buddies left the Army and started working in different “traditional” jobs, and they hated it. There wasn’t any purpose or mission. They weren’t around the same environment or caliber of people that they had in the military.
So I invited some of them to come work on the ranch in Georgia with me, and I realized that there were a ton of guys who loved this ranching work, just like me. I had just gotten lucky meeting that horse trainer in the butcher shop.
Once I realized there was a need here, I started developing a plan to get more guys to the ranch, to get them plugged in, even if it was in a small way. And as more guys heard about it, interest from the veteran community exploded, so I started fundraising to create a nonprofit, because I needed resources to deal with all of this demand.
So that’s how a chance encounter with a horse trainer became Bear Hug Cattle Company.
Jack: This was about the time that you headed to Harvard Business School, right? How did Bear Hug play into your decision to get your MBA?
Ben: When I decided to go to Harvard, Bear Hug was not yet a sustainable, full-time operation that needed employees. It didn’t reach that capacity until after I had started school. So my decision came down to two things:
First, the nonprofit was continuing to grow, and I realized, “Man, I don't really know much about money, business, etc.” I felt responsible to these people who were giving us all this money to run a nonprofit, and I wanted a better handle on how to actually ‘run the business’ of Bear Hug.
The second reason was that I just wanted to explore the opportunities that were out there in business. I wanted to be involved in some cool conversations with some smart people about how the world works, and stuff like that. I never really felt the pull toward a more traditional post-MBA path.
Jack: How long has Bear Hug existed in its current capacity, and how many veterans have come through the program so far?
Ben: When Bear Hug began a few years ago, we just had a pile of guys come through for one and two-day deals, while others worked with us for up to ~six weeks. However, we have since revamped Bear Hug as a structured, 10-week-long program.
Last summer was our first time running the full program, and we had four guys in the group. This year we have expanded to a group of 10.
Jack: How big is your applicant pool now?
Ben: We’ve been fortunate to be able to be super selective, because we’ve had hundreds of applicants for a very limited number of spots.
Jack: So Bear Hug’s acceptance rate is lower than Harvard Business School’s?
Ben: Yeah, without a doubt.
Ben: You heard it here first: Bear Hug Cattle Company is more exclusive than Harvard Business School.
Jack: Love that. Switching gears a bit, but I wanted to talk more about that shift from military to civilian life.
I played football in college, and while it couldn’t come close to the level of intensity y’all experienced overseas, it was a hectic five-year experience. You can’t screw up because your team is counting on you. Your coaches are screaming at you every morning at 7 AM because they need you to be on your A-game when Saturday comes around. It’s a tough environment. But it’s also incredibly rewarding because you feel like you earned your accomplishments. Then you graduate and join the corporate workforce, and it’s just… I don’t know… dull? It lacks that gratification that you get from doing the “hard work.” I feel like that shift is 10x worse for veterans, right?
Ben: 100%. You take an Army Ranger who’s been good at his job for a decade, right? He’s the best of the best. He is in charge of a group of soldiers fighting a war in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan. He’s working out with his team every day. They live together. Eat together. Knock down ISIS’s walls together. Then his tour ends on a Friday and on Monday, he’s back to square one. Yeah, he knows how to lead people, but he doesn’t know anything about working a normal job or trade. And now he’s supposed to just throw on a suit and tie and start working in an office?
That just doesn’t work. Guys like that are so accustomed to high stakes. To a mission, a team, a reason to get up in the morning. And when you take that away from them, they can't function. The only other place that I've seen a similar level of engagement is on the ranch. I don't care if it's raining or snowing or hot or cold, I have to get up. I have to feed the horse. I have to go because the rest of the guys on the team can't get the job done if I'm not there today. And no, it's obviously not the same stakes. No one is shooting at you. You're not gonna die. But still, the stakes are high. You’re on a team. People are counting on you. And it’s tough. Men and women coming out of the military need something like that. Something tough, but rewarding.
Jack: Something that I’ve thought about a lot recently: our lives, especially in the US, are so much easier than they would have been 100 years ago. Everyone has air conditioning and smartphones. You can make a lot of money doing jobs that aren’t all that tough. And yet, so many people aren’t happy. My $0.02? No one derives any sense of accomplishment from just coasting, but this is one of the first times ever that you could just “coast” and live a decent life. It’s like, we need a struggle.
Ben: I totally agree. There's a big difference between sitting around filling spreadsheets out all day and getting up at four in the morning, catching and feeding horses, loading them in a trailer, driving through the mountains to go ride three hours to go check on cattle, getting back at eight o'clock, eating dinner, going to bed, and doing it all again the next day.
It’s hard, but you feel so good at the end of the day. It’s something special that you don’t get with most other professions.
Jack: What has been the most rewarding aspect of running Bear Hug?
Ben: It’s awesome watching guys develop over the course of the program. They go through all these different phases of growth. At first, it’s a humbling experience. You were at the top of your game, and now you’re learning that you don't know how to do this thing. You're on the back of this thousand-pound horse, and you can't just make it do what you want it to do because it has a brain too. You have to learn how to work again, on a different kind of team with something that you're not really good at.
Watching them figure that out and grow through that whole process throughout the whole summer is really cool. By the end of it, you have this crew of capable cowboys that can be turned loose on the ranch world.
Jack: What do the guys do when the program is over? Work full-time on different ranches out west?
Ben: Yes, the overarching goal is to help these guys land jobs in the agriculture industry after the summer, and most of our guys do get hired on a ranch after finishing their 10 weeks. We also have some folks who go back to school for a year to earn an agriculture degree, or go to business school, or head home to work for winter before coming back out the following summer for ranch work.
But our primary goal is to give them the skills and connections they need to land a job on a ranch. Our aspiration is to become a marketplace between the labor that's needed on ranches and the guys who are trained on it, and so far it’s been an awesome, awesome deal.
Jack: Is running Bear Hug your full-time job? I imagine that fundraising, handling operations, and growing the business doesn’t leave much time for anything else.
Ben: So, I actually have another full-time job. I work for an early-stage venture capital fund, Hivers & Strivers, based in Washington DC. It’s an industry-agnostic, early-stage venture fund that invests exclusively in military-founded or owned startups.
Jack: So you are literally a cattle rancher and venture capitalist?
Jack: That has to be one of the more insane careers out there.
Ben: Yeah, it’s definitely time-consuming.
Jack: So everyone else on the Bear Hug team is in a similar boat then, I’m guessing.
Ben: Yep. So we have a huge pool of people who volunteer to help with everything from bookkeeping to fundraising, and a lot of our resources, especially operationally, come from the ranches that we work with in the summer.
Jack: How many hours a day do you think you spend on both of your jobs? Does it vary with the season?
Ben: So I would say that right now my time is split 50/50 between Bear Hug and venture. So I’ll do eight hours of venture and eight hours of Bear Hug pretty much every day. And then in the summer, it’ll be 12 hours of Bear Hug per week day, with four hours each night and heavy weekends dedicated to venture.
Jack: Are there any crossovers between venture and Bear Hug, or do they remain separate parts of your life?
Ben: They’re pretty separate, except for one aspect: running a nonprofit is similar to a startup, especially on the fundraising front. So I can relate to founders. I can relate to people who are out there fundraising because I spend most of my time doing the same thing. So it’s not a true crossover, but there are some parallels.
Jack: Say ideally this keeps growing over the next 5-10 years. What would success look like in 2030?
Ben: We're continuously thinking about what Bear Hug might look like five years from now. Basically, the short version of this answer is over the next couple of years, we're going to continue to increase our capacity to better serve more vets. And that means more classes, more guys and gals, and more resources than we have now. Five years from now we want to have our own ranch to operate so we can increase our numbers to 50+ guys per year.
If we stopped taking new apps right now, it would take us 20 years to serve everyone. There are just so many people that want to help with this deal. Hopefully, this grows and we can continue to serve more people.
Jack: What are one or two of your funniest stories from the ranch?
Ben: Oh man, there are so many, but I would just start with your man Jake Croxdale.
(Jake, one of my classmates and rugby teammates at Columbia, is the one who put me in touch with Ben. He was previously an Army Ranger, and he spent last summer working with Bear Hug before business school began.)
Here’s Crox being a cowboy
Ben: So, Crox is this big, bad ranger squad leader. Crox was also the first guy in last year’s cohort to climb on a horse. We keep about 15 horses, and the timeline was tight getting the camp set up last summer, meaning that we hadn’t had time to ride all of the horses before the guy arrived. And this particular horse wasn’t broke. It wasn’t trained. Like, it was a pretty, pretty squirrely horse.
We didn’t know that.
I said, “Crox! Hey, go grab that one, saddle up, and ride it around.” And as he swung his leg over that horse, it just started bucking, and the animal launched him 10 feet in the air.
The first horse that a participant mounted all summer, and it sent our man flying.
It was hysterical.
So of course we were all laughing and clapping, saying, “You got it Crox!”
So Crox tries to mount the horse again. The thing is, these horses are trained to turn if you press your foot into their sides, and Crox was only halfway up, and his foot was digging into the horse’s ribs.
We had explained to Crox and all the other guys not to press your foot against the horses’s sides, but it’s easier said than done when you aren’t trying to remount the animal that just catapulted you. So Crox is halfway on this horse, and it’s spinning around like a tilt-a-whirl, whipping donuts in the middle of the field.
I was in tears, we really couldn’t have started the summer better. There were a million things like that, but that’s one that stands out.
Jack: One, that’s hysterical, especially knowing Jake. I’ll make sure to bring it up. Two, I think that’s all of the questions I have. Is there anything else you want me to share?
Ben: I’m good as well! Thanks for taking some time to chat.
Jack: And thank you too! Looking forward to keeping up with Bear Hug this summer!
That’s all for today! If you want to learn more about Bear Hug Cattle Company, check them out here, and give their mixtape a watch below. If this doesn’t make you want to be a cowboy, I’m not sure what will.
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